Is Punjab Heading Towards Turmoil?
Emergence of Amritpal Singh, and revival of communal politics are a matter of concern
The term turmoil seems to have become synonymous with the state of Punjab. There are layers of 'induced' churnings everywhere in the state now. There is no clear indication on who gains from this as there are multiple players involved, both political and non-political.
Observers point out that there are forces who don't want to disturb the status quo, and then there are others who want tremors, maybe controlled ones for now, to keep the pot simmering.
As far as common people are concerned, they continue to watch the developments with their fingers crossed. People are trying to unravel what has been going on, particularly after the historic farmers' movement that had compelled the centre to repeal the three controversial farm laws, was suspended. One needs to understand the ongoing Punjab conundrum step-by-step.
To begin with, a man named Amritpal Singh has emerged on the political and panthic turf of Punjab in the last couple of months and is creating ripples. The 29-year-old returned from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and recently took over the organisation 'Waris Panjab De'.
The organisation had been floated by Deep Sidhu, an actor and activist who was accused of hoisting the Nishan Sahib at the Red Fort on January 26, 2021 when the farmers' movement was at its zenith. The farmer organisations had distanced themselves from Sidhu's act. Sidhu was killed in an accident earlier this year.
Now many are referring to Amritpal Singh, as the 'second' Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the militant who was killed in Operation Bluestar in 1984. Those who have been observing Amritpal Singh say his mannerisms resemble Bhindranwale.
Amritpal Singh's 'dastarbandi' (turban tying ceremony) at Bhindranwale's native village was a major event. He reportedly said, "Bhindranwale is my inspiration. I will walk the path shown by him. I want to be like him because that's what every Sikh wants, but I am not copying him. I am not even equal to the dust of his feet."
Sources on the ground as well as reports refer to Amritpal Singh as a radical talking in terms of 'slavery' and 'azadi'. He is among the most discussed subjects on social media. Hailing from Jallupur Kheda village of Amritsar, he gained traction only after he came out in support of the farmers' movement, and later became a vocal supporter of Deep Sidhu.
Amritpal's emergence has now led to several interpretations and questions have been raised. The first question is about the timing of Amritpal's emergence on the scene. The second is, who stands to gain from his conduct and activities?
Observers and those who were part of the farmers' movement point out that one immediate outcome being feared is that of religious polarisation. The masses do not want the dark days of the 1980s to return to Punjab.
Another outcome that many are pointing out to is that this is a part of a larger design to break the unity that was achieved along with the political consciousness during the farmers' movement. "Whenever things are scattered in the political, social and economic spheres, the Right Wing tries to capture space. This is what has been happening or is being allowed to happen in Punjab.
The farmers' movement led to a rise in consciousness among the masses like never before. It made them understand how the traditional political forces had failed to deliver and address their concerns. The people looked for a political alternative in the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)," pointed an observer.
Even the farmers' leader Joginder Singh Ugrahan had recently said at a book release programme, "people went a step ahead looking for a change and elected Simranjit Singh Mann in the recent Sangrur parliamentary by-election." Ironically, Mann had lost badly in the Assembly polls just four months ago.
A pertinent point was raised by Narayan Dutt of Inquilabi Kendra Punjab. "On one side a journalist Angad Singh is deported from Delhi airport and on the other a man openly talking of violence is being allowed a free run," he said. Angad had made documentaries on the Shaheen Bagh protests and also the Delta wave outbreak of Covid-19 in India.
Senior Congress leader Amarinder Singh Raja Warring recently wrote to Punjab's Director General of Police (DGP) Gaurav Yaday about keeping an eye on Amritpal's activities. "We can't afford to push Punjab into another phase of extremism and wanton killings. Life and blood of our youth are too sacred to be shed and wasted for imaginary grievances," he had said.
There are many voices of rationale speaking against the narrative set by Amritpal. They have been denouncing the narrative of 'slavery', pointing out that Sikhs in India are functioning at the tope echelons of politics, administration, executive, judiciary, and defence forces.
An interesting take comes from Vijay Bombeli who has been documenting Punjab's political developments for several years. "The weakening of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) is an important factor in the emerging scenario. Previously there was a fear of the party that had a strong mass base and setting such radical narratives was very difficult. The present scenario has even left the Sikh section very confused."
Pointing out towards the recent development of SAD (Delhi) led by Paramjit Singh Sarna merging into SAD (Badal), Bombeli said that it is the latter's 'surrender'. The SAD has, however, stated on behalf of its president Sukhbir Singh Badal that, "today's 'Panthic Ikattarta' (unity) signalled Panthic revival to defeat the challenges thrown at the Sikh quom. Devious conspiracies are at work to engineer a civil war in the Sikh community. Unity alone will defeat these conspiracies."
It is well known that the Akalis have been desperately trying to revive themselves after being trounced in two successive Assembly polls in Punjab. In the process they have also been trying to return to their traditional turf of Panthic politics. They are speaking on issues like release of 'Bandi Singhs' (Sikh prisoners) who are still languishing in jails even after completion of their sentence.
An issue that has come to the centre stage of Sikh politics is the Supreme Court upholding the constitutional validity of the Haryana Sikh Gurdwaras (Management) Act 2014. The Act had been enacted by Bhupinder Singh Hooda led Congress government in the state in 2014 on the eve of the Assembly polls.
The apex court's decision will pave the way for a Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (HSGMC). This has led to protests in Punjab with a demand that the centre file a review petition in the Supreme Court or enact a new law doing away with the validation.
Sukhbir recently led a 'Khalsa Ros march' organised by Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) reportedly saying that the Sikh community will unite to defeat the conspiracy to weaken its institutions and divide its strength. He said in a tweet, "Sikh quom is uniting as one to express its anger & anguish against the centre & parties like @INCIndia & @AamAadmiParty who have collectively targeted the community by breaking the SGPC."
Meanwhile, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar after attending the bhog (concluding ceremony) of the Akhand Path held at Gurdwara Sri Nada Sahib in Panchkula on Sunday, said that the state government while respecting the Sikh sentiments had strongly defended the formation of a separate Gurdwara Management Committee for Haryana in the Supreme Court.
"As a result of which the Supreme Court announced its verdict in favour of the Sikh Sangat of Haryana by upholding the validity of the Haryana Sikh Gurdwara (Management) Act, 2014. The verdict will certainly further strengthen the unity of the sect," said Khattar.
He underlined that Sri Akal Takht is still the highest authority. But local committees are needed for the Gurdwaras built at different places. The separation of the management system of Gurdwara is certainly not going to affect the unity of the sect.
"When separate Gurdwara Management Committees can be formed for Patna Sahib, Takht Sri Hazur Abchalnagar Sahib, Nanded and Delhi, then why the same cannot be done in Haryana. The formation of the Gurdwara Management Committee has been done only for making the governance and management system of the Gurdwaras smoother. The religious system is supreme, there is no interference of the government in it," said Khattar.
He added that as per the order of the Supreme Court, the election of the Gurdwara Management Committee will be held in 18 months, till then the ad hoc committee will look after the functioning of the Gurdwaras.
Many in Punjab are pointing towards how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that is in power in both the centre and Haryana has been furthering its cause in the context of Punjab. Both Bombeli and Dutt pointed to the fact that the BJP used the Akalis with whom it was in an electoral alliance to get its foothold in Punjab.
It was only under the pressure from the people during the farmers' movement that the Akalis had to walk out of the alliance. "It is the Akalis who have been the losers. Even AAP would want them to weaken further.
"One needs to look at things in a larger perspective. Who stands to gain through religious polarisation that will lead to fear among one community?" pointed out Dutt.
Another political observer and sociologist Professor Manjeet Singh, said things should be seen in the context of the Lok Sabha polls of 2024. One has to keep in mind the issues being raised by Khattar from time to time that have had an emotive appeal in Punjab.
Claiming Chandigarh, and More
Some months back it was the demand for construction of an additional state Assembly building in Chandigarh raised by Khattar that had Union Home Minister Amit Shah announce that Haryana would be given land for the purpose in Chandigarh.
The announcement had reportedly come during the Northern Zonal Council meeting of states at Jaipur where Khattar said that a new delimitation is proposed in the year 2026, on the basis of which Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections will be held in 2029. It is estimated that according to the population of Haryana in the new delimitation, the number of Assembly constituencies will be 126 and the number of Lok Sabha constituencies will be 14.
Soon after the announcement, Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann reportedly urged the centre to allot land to Punjab in a similar manner. This had led to his political opponents attacking him for 'diluting' and 'surrendering' Punjab's claim on Chandigarh.
The dispute regarding Chandigarh dates back to the time of reorganisation of states that led to areas being carved out of Punjab for creation of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. The city was made a union territory and a joint capital where assemblies and High Court are housed together.
Khattar has also been raising the contentious issue of Sutlej Yamuna Link (SYL) canal seeking water share from Punjab. The latter has been saying that it does not have any water to spare.
All these things have been playing out in the narratives even as new characters have emerged and gone from the public domain. In a short span Punjab has seen the popularity of characters like gangster turned 'activist' Lakha Sidhana, actor Deep Sidhu, controversial singer Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu popularly known as Sidhu Moosewala who was gunned down, and now it is Amritpal.
Incidentally a song by Moosewala about SYL that was released after his death was removed from YouTube. It got a million hits within 30 minutes of its release. The song had mentioned a militant Balwinder Singh Jattana who along with his associates had reportedly shot dead two senior officers.
The murders of Chief Engineer MS Sikri and Superintending Engineer Avtar Aulakhs had resulted in the work on SYL being stopped during the days of militancy in Punjab. Jattana was later killed in a police encounter.
The song was banned in India a few days after its release. It touched on other contentious issues like Punjab before the reorganisation of states, the 1984 anti Sikh riots, hoisting Nishan Sahib at the Red Fort when the farmers' movement was at its peak. It had reportedly garnered more than 2.7 crore views and 33 lakh likes in three days, before being pulled down.
Referring to the ongoing developments Manjeet Singh pointed out that it has to be kept in mind that there has traditionally been a lack of trust between Punjab and Delhi (centre). The latter wants to keep things in control since Punjab is a border state. "This mutual distrust plays out in different ways," he said.
He has an interesting take in the context of the social movements in the state. "The ultra Left or the Naxalite movement where the people had stood politically motivated and conscious was neutralised with the Green Revolution. The money that came changed the entire thought process of the people.
"A little more than ten years later it was the creation of Bhindranwale which eventually resulted in a thoroughly corrupt bureaucracy and Police taking centre stage. At this point of time following the farmers' movement there is again disenchantment with the state of affairs and the collective resistance has been very strong," he told this reporter.
"The religious card being played by certain elements fits into the game of certain political forces eyeing gains in 2024 polls. It will leave the Hindus polarised and the Sikhs divided," he added.
At the same time it is being felt that the attempts at dividing people won't sustain in the long run. Talking in context of the impact on the farmers' unity and the unity achieved between the people of Haryana and Punjab, Dutt said, "people on the Haryana side understand that Punjab does not have water to spare. In fact it is running short of water itself. Hence there is no mass support for the claims being made by the politicians on SYL. They understand that it is an issue that has been created for political purposes."
He further pointed out that neither will there be any impact on farmers' unity. "The farmers' movement gave space to everyone irrespective of their religion or caste. There were Muslim farmers as well as Hindu farmers along with the Sikhs. It had the support of other social groups like traders as well. They understand very well that who does not like their unity," he said.
Talking in context of the statements coming from radical elements like Amritpal, Bombeli said, "support for the radicals is limited at the moment mainly to social media. It is a section of the elite that is circulating the narrative. The common people are quietly carrying out their work."
Observers say that Amritpal Singh gives the impression of someone who has been 'tutored' and 'trained'. They also say that he comes out as someone who is 'flat' in his conduct.
Some of them point out that there are contradictions emerging even in the right wing. They point to the reported statement of Deep Sidhu's brother saying that the family never made Amritpal the head of 'Waris Panjab De' and Sidhu had never met him.
An intelligence and surveillance expert told this reporter that such developments and processes like the ones being witnessed in Punjab are a part of an 'exhaustive arrangement' whereby certain players are identified to suit different narratives over a period of time.
The fact remains that there is turbulence. How it plays out remains to be seen.